The artist David Lew, known as Shark Toof and who lives between Los Angeles and Detroit, has sued the Los Angeles Chinese American Museum and to the city itself for the destruction of one of its works. According to the “Los Angeles Times,” Lew claims the museum threw one of his works into the trash while it was still on display as part of an exhibition in 2018, titled “Don’t Believe the Hype: LA Asian Americans in Hip-Hop.” The exhibition, which brought together nine graffiti artists and muralists, reflected on issues such as resistance, refuge and reinvention of Asian Americans living in Los Angeles.
Lew’s piece, titled “Shayu De Yi Nian Lai See” (Red Bag of the Year of the Shark) presented 88 empty canvas bags (the number eight symbolizes prosperity and good fortune in Chinese culture), decorated with gold leaf, which hung on clotheslines in the museum courtyard, a nod to the Chinese immigrants who work in the laundry business from the United States. The idea of the installation was that the bags would deteriorate as the days went by: the canvas would fray and the paint would fade and crack because of the sun.
According to the lawsuit, Lew’s work was abruptly pulled from the yard and thrown away in December 2018 by city workers, under the auspices of the museum and the organization Friends of the American Chinese Museum. On December 7, according to the demand, days before the exhibition ended, a city maintenance crew pulled out the bags and threw them away, without anyone from the museum or the management of El Pueblo being present to supervise the removal of the bags. Fourteen of the 88 bags were not thrown away. They had fallen during the course of the show, Lew said, but were never reinstalled. The lawsuit claims that the bags were destroyed, but in response to the “Los Angeles Times” query, the museum said the bags were put away.
“The accused desecrated, distorted, mutilated and / or destroyed the work recklessly or intentionally, thereby violating Lew’s rights, ”the lawsuit states. Lew owned all rights and ownership of the 88 bags. “The defendants had a duty to the plaintiff to preserve the 88 pieces and carefully remove them to preserve the work.” “It was not supervised, neither by the museum nor by the city,” says Lew’s attorney, Les Weinstein. Bases the claim on Visual Artists Rights Law, which allows artists to claim damages if their work is destroyed.
The museum is part of The People of Los Angeles, a department of the city. It is located in the city center, in the historic Garnier Building, the last surviving structure from Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. The building is owned and maintained by the city. In addition to seeking compensation for damages, Lew asks the court to issue a court order preventing the city and the museums under city control from removing an exhibition without prior notice to the artist.